Faces of the Diaspora Series: A Passion for Protecting the Ocean

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Photo: Native Hawaiian conservationist Rachel Kippen
Native Hawaiian conservationist Rachel Kippen works to protect Moananuiākea from the west coast.- Courtesy Photo

Although Rachel Kippen, 39, hasn’t lived in Hawaiʻi for two decades, she channels her Kanaka Maoli ancestry every day in her ocean conservation work and artistic passion. She’s driven by her kuleana to create positive change – one sparked by her parents.

Her father, Colin Kippen, Jr., is a lawyer who advocates for Indigenous populations, including Native Hawaiians. Her late mother, Deborah, was a doctor at Honolulu’s Kalihi-Pālama Health Center and other medical clinics nationwide.

Kippen’s parents met as students at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash., where they both worked in the dining hall. Kippen described her dad as a “charmer from Oʻahu,” while her mom was a towheaded Minnesotan with “no interest in dudes.”

He tried to help her one day, and she snubbed him, which left him intrigued. After sparking a relationship, the two moved to Hawaiʻi and married in 1971, then finished their bachelor’s degrees together at the University of Hawaiʻi and finished their higher education at the University of Iowa.

They eventually returned to Washington, and Kippen was born in Seattle in 1984. Soon after, her family moved to Bainbridge Island near the Suquamish reservation where her dad served as a tribal judge.

Her father prioritized keeping Kippen and her two brothers in touch with their Hawaiian ancestry. He helped organize a cultural exchange between the Suquamish and Kānaka Maoli. Kippen joined a hālau hula with her mother.

“Even though I understood that it was important to my dad that we be proud of being Hawaiian, I still didn’t fully feel like I got what that meant,” Kippen said. “I actually honestly don’t feel like I totally got what that meant probably until a decade ago.”

Kippen moved to Oʻahu as a preteen – an “abrupt change” in her young life, she said. She sounded different from local kids, using words like “pop” instead of “soda.”

“Of course, people didn’t immediately assume – and still don’t immediately assume – that I’m Hawaiian,” Kippen said. “That’s just part of being a mixed person.”

Although she initially felt like an outsider, she soon made friends and was admitted to Kamehameha Schools. Kippen didn’t continue hula after moving home. Instead, she gravitated toward ocean activities. She kayaked, paddled outrigger canoes, and played water polo.

Kippen also had a kolohe streak. Her friend’s father, Tom Pōhaku Stone, taught Kippen how to surf, and she’d sometimes skip school to catch waves.

Upon graduating from high school, “we were encouraged to leave” by academic mentors, she said. “To see what the world has to offer, and then come home.”

Kippen moved to Southern California to attend school. Although many of her Kamehameha classmates were jarred by their own continental relocations, she was unshaken. Kippen earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Redlands and a master’s degree at Prescott College – both in environmental studies.

Since then, she’s worn many hats. Kippen worked as an aquarist assistant at Sea Life Park Hawaiʻi’s Hawaiian green sea turtle rehabilitation and release program. She has also taught marine science at several California institutions, including the Marine Science Institute, the California Academy of Sciences and California State University, Monterey Bay.

While working at nonprofit Save Our Shores in Santa Cruz, Calif., she met her Ohio-born husband, Jim Laske, in 2013 after he applied to volunteer. He reminded her of the local boys in Hawaiʻi and his background in international development meant he wanted to make the world a better place – just like her.

Early in their relationship, Kippen jokingly sent Laske a text in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi. To her surprise, he responded in Tongan – turns out he had lived in Tonga for three years.

In February 2022, the pair married in a backyard ceremony behind Kippen’s parents’ house in Maunawili on Oʻahu, surrounded by ʻulu trees and family members.

Over the past 12 years, Kippen has worked on the issue of ocean pollution and its prevention, along with related climate planning. Outside of her career, she’s used art to explore her relationship with the earth and her kūpuna. For example, inspired by lau hala weaving, she created an art piece woven using plastic pollutants.

Kippen recently moved from Santa Cruz, Calif., to Seattle for a job in marine debris.

“What I’ve struggled with as an adult is ʻwhat does it mean to have a home?’” Kippen said. She and Jim chose Washington state because of her familial connection to the place. The large Hawaiian diasporic community there is a bonus.

Kippen’s father and her older brother, Noah, still live on Oʻahu. Her little brother, Sam, settled in St. Louis, Mo., due to the cost of housing.

For Kippen, “there’s absolutely no way we would ever be able to buy a home” in Hawaiʻi. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to ever make a life there,” she said.

However, she and her siblings hope to keep the Maunawili house in their ʻohana “forever.”

No matter where she is, Kippen vows to correct stereotypes about Hawaiʻi and Hawaiians and perpetuate our cultural values. And she wants to reassure young Kānaka Maoli struggling with cultural imposter syndrome: “As you’re growing up and trying to figure out your identity…[have no doubts that] you are Hawaiian.”